Introverts in the Church

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adam mchugh book1 Introverts in the ChurchThis post is courtesy of Reverend Adam McHugh, author of the terrific book, “Introverts in the Church,” and the blog, www.introvertedchurch.com. It originally appeared in The Washington Post. Regardless of your religious inclinations, McHugh has powerful insights to share on the idealization of extroversion in our culture.

The scowling old man nearly bumped into me as he fled the sanctuary.

As I turned to watch him stomp out to the parking lot, I asked a friend if she knew why he’d left before the service started. She replied, “You know how in your sermon last week you encouraged all of us to be more welcoming to newcomers? Well, after five people came up to him to introduce themselves, he blurted “Can a guy just be anonymous when he checks out a new place? I want to be left alone!” And thus concluded his seven minute survey of our church.

It’s not only cantankerous old men with a flair for storm-off exits who are turned off by hyper-friendly churches, however. As I reflected on that event, I realized that I too would be intimidated and overwhelmed by that many strangers approaching me, no matter how genuine and kind they were. As it turns out, our churches are actually teeming with this species of people called “introverts.” I am one of them, as is 50% of the American population, according to our best and latest research.

Unfortunately, owing to a few antisocial types as well as to a general extroverted bias in our culture, introverts get a bad rap. Mainstream American culture values gregarious, aggressive people who are skilled in networking and who can quickly turn strangers into friends. Often we identify leaders as those people who speak up the most and the fastest, whether or not their ideas are the best.

As a result, introverts are often defined by what we’re not rather than by what we are. We’re labeled as standoffish or misanthropic or timid or passive. But the truth is that we are people who are energized in solitude, rather than among people. We may be comfortable and articulate in social situations and we may enjoy people, but our time in the outer worlds drains us and we must retreat into solitude to be recharged. We also process silently before we speak, rather than speaking in order to think, as extroverts do. We generally listen a little more than we talk, observe for a while before we engage, and have a rich inner life that brings us great stimulation and satisfaction. Neurological studies have demonstrated that our brains naturally have more activity and blood flow, and thus we need less external stimulation in order to thrive.

I saw the need for a book on this topic when I realized that our cultural slant had infiltrated some wings of the church, especially mainstream evangelicalism. As I say in Introverts in the Church, entering your average evangelical worship service feels like walking into a non-alcoholic cocktail party. Evangelicalism has a chatty, mingling informality about it, and no matter how well-intentioned that atmosphere is, it can be a difficult environment for those of us who are overwhelmed by large quantities of social interaction and who may connect best with God in silence. Sometimes our communities talk so much that we are not able to express the gifts that we bring to others. If we are given the space, we bring gifts of listening, insight, creativity, compassion, and a calming presence, things that our churches desperately need.

Even more dangerous is the tendency of evangelical churches to unintentionally exalt extroverted qualities as the “ideals” of faithfulness. Too often “ideal” Christians are social and gregarious, with an overt passion and enthusiasm. They find it easy to share the gospel with strangers, eagerly invite people into their homes, participate in a wide variety of activities, and quickly assume leadership responsibilities. Those are wonderful qualities, and our churches suffer when we don’t have those sorts of people, but if these qualities epitomize the Christian life, many of us introverts are left feeling excluded and spiritually inadequate. Or we wear ourselves out from constantly masquerading as extroverts.

Though I empathize with that old man, I wish he had endured the overwhelming hospitality of our community that day. He would have learned that the Christian life is not about anonymity, and we would have gained another introverted member who contributed valuable gifts to our community and ministry. Both he and our church would have been better for it.

What did you think of McHugh’s article? If you have a religious or spiritual practice, do you find your introversion to be an asset? A barrier? Valued? Misunderstood? A non-issue? Would love to know.


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23 Comments

  1. Nina on 08.07.2011 at 08:21 (Reply)

    I like having the option to be anonymous in a church. Sure, I’ll come out of my shell, but not immediately, and maybe not for six months or a year–and even then, you won’t find me in the center of activities. I get very stressed by “outgoing” churches that have special hand-shaking (and hugging, and kissing, and greeting) times during the service, and where folks feel compelled to introduce themselves to the newcomers and encourage them to join everyone for the after-church coffee. I feel like a target and wish people would just leave me alone.

    Of course, there are people who are turned off by churches that *don’t* appear to make an effort to get to know them right off. So I don’t know what the answer is, other than having everyone wear “I” and “E” signs on their foreheads so everyone will know how to treat them. :-)

    1. Christy on 08.07.2011 at 13:05 (Reply)

      That is a brilliant idea, Nina. I approve.

    2. Danielle on 09.07.2011 at 14:57 (Reply)

      I second the motion.

  2. Maureen McCabe on 08.07.2011 at 10:18 (Reply)

    I go to church weekly. We do the “kiss of peace” mostly handshaking, definitely no kissing strangers… about 3/4 of the way through. In the mid 1990s the church I went to did this at the very beginning. The point was to make it friendlier. I would come to church late so I would not have to. For some reason shaking the hand and saying “Peace be with you” or something similar to the people in front of me, behind me, on either side… after I have shared the space with them for about 40 minutes is much easier for me.

    I have visited other churches (and denominations)and I feel better if I can just be anonymous, politely nod and smile than have to be interviewed about who I am, why I am there.

  3. Karin Norgard on 08.07.2011 at 12:49 (Reply)

    I no longer attend church, but when I did I always felt uncomfortable with that part of the service. I know my mother would love to go to church but can’t get over this aspect, which is unfortunate.

    I am both a teacher and a dancer, so needless to say my introversion is a surprise to many people based on how confident and expressive I am when it comes to teaching and dancing. I have always been drawn to the truths that lie in seeming contradiction, so perhaps this is fitting . And Susan, thank you for the recent post in which you explained the difference between introversion and shyness; this definitely clarifies a few things for me.

    Getting back to the article, this is an excellent post from Reverend McHugh. The entire paragraph beginning with “As a result…” is a wonderful description and makes me feel like my introversion is a beautiful thing. I would love to know if there are online links available for the neurological studies he speaks of. Susan, do you or the Reverend have these to pass along? Thanks!

  4. Luna on 08.07.2011 at 14:01 (Reply)

    This is very interesting. I am very turned off by the whole hand shaking, greeting people thing at church. I would like to attend a service to be in the presence of others who perhaps like me, would simply like to contemplate the greatness of what is around them or have a few moments of quiet reflection listening hopefully to some words of wisdom. I simply have not found it at any church I have attended. Chatty people approach me asking where I have been if I miss a week, jobs are hoisted in my direction for activities the church is hosting. It drives me crazy. I feel so exposed and have to put on my artificial, social self just to get through it which is not why I attend church. So I don’t attend. I simply read thoughtful works by writers I admire and meditate quietly in my home. I love Nina’s suggestion but even then people would look and invariably feel compelled to ‘fix’ you convincing themselves somehow that you aren’t really an introvert you just haven’t met the right people!

  5. Susan Cain on 08.07.2011 at 16:04 (Reply)

    Wonderful tweet from a reader:

    Two thoughts: (1) Mainstream Christianity says that you can’t practice faith in isolation despite its long monastic tradition & (2) This is why there are Quakers.

  6. Megan on 08.07.2011 at 17:55 (Reply)

    I had not thought about the role of introverts in different churches. Although I am very introverted, I think that I have been able to attend services without problems because I am Catholic, and the Catholic mass is almost exactly the same every week wherever you go. It tends to be somewhat quiet and contemplative and does not require much participation beyond memorized phrases and prayers. No one cares if you sing or not. However, I have been to some Catholic churches where they force you to introduce yourself to your neighbor before mass starts (awkward!), and they want you to hold hands during the Our Father, which I refuse to do. I don’t mind the Sign of Peace because you just need to shake your neighbors’ hands.

    We’ve slowly gotten to know some people through going to some quiet events, like trivia night and wine and cheese after Saturday evening mass. I realize that a lot of people are probably turned off by not having gobs of people welcome them to the church, but I prefer relative anonymity. We’ve gone to the Episcopal church nearby for fun, but we would always have to bolt for the door after the last song to avoid people trying to talk to us!

    1. Christy on 08.07.2011 at 19:18 (Reply)

      I love getting to know people the way you mention, Megan, “quiet events” and so on. I definitely do not prefer it the way it always seems to be encouraged in the church: “Go introduce yourself to someone you don’t know!” It’s made such a virtue of.
      I am a Pentecostal, and the Pentecostal church is probably the most extraverted denomination. I’m not going to change denominations anytime soon (or ever), but I would love it if people could just try to comprehend the fact that meeting new people in the greeting time is not forming relationships. And yet, what can we really do? If we aren’t all charming and greety, we’ll turn off extraverts just as much as introverts are turned off at present. We can’t expect all introverts to go to Catholic churches and all extraverts to go to Pentecostal churches.

    2. Kurt on 08.07.2011 at 21:37 (Reply)

      Hi Megan,
      Although I’m not Catholic, I grew up in the Lutheran tradition, so I’m familiar with the routine of the Liturgy. I presently go to an evangelical church that is VERY extrovertive. My wife likes it, so it is one of many compromises that exist as part of our married relationship.
      I do respect the Catholic tradition a lot for having lots of different dimensions that can include the solitude that appeals to introverts like me. For the last 2 years, I’ve taken a 5-day mini retreat to a local Benedictine monastery with a hermitage — a single person retreat center. 5 days and 4 nights without anyone to have to talk to, no expectations to manage or schedules to keep, but lots of time for oil painting, hiking and the forest and biking — heaven on earth for an introvert!
      I do not really like all church retreats because they tend to involve large volumes of comparatively shallow dialog. I have never personally found worship services, bible studies or group retreats to be very spiritually meaningful experiences.

  7. Tim Larison on 09.07.2011 at 19:36 (Reply)

    As an introvert who has attended a variety of churches over the years, I find many people tend to think others should worship just like they do or else something is wrong with the other’s spiritual practice. For example, I attended a charismatic church with a very extroverted minister. She was an excellent speaker but she would frequently comment that the early service was the “dead” service. The early service had more introverts who were into a quieter type of worship experience. The implication was that the introverts weren’t truly “free” and had something wrong with them since they weren’t dancing in the aisles.

    On the other hand, introverts are just as prone to judge the extroverts for displaying a more exuberant style of worship! I was talking to an introvert once who said the charismatics were just all show and didn’t have the depth of spiritual experience that she had.

    I say let people have the spiritual practice that feels right to them, whether it be introverted and extroverted. I agree with McHugh that churches do tend to emphasize the extrovert qualities more, but we introverts need to be careful, too, in thinking our more reflective style is the “right” way for everyone. Any church can benefit from a good mix of introverts and extroverts without each type imposing their style on the other.

    1. Faith on 09.07.2011 at 22:03 (Reply)

      I love how you said that. I grew up in a charismatic Pentecostal church and I love the worship and the charismatic preaching, but it is frustrating to see a quieter less demonstrative type of worship criticized. When I’m at college I attend a quiet Presbyterian church and it sometimes frustrates me how quiet it is. More of a balance that you talk about would be refreshing.

    2. Christy on 10.07.2011 at 01:11 (Reply)

      Very, very well said.

  8. Danielle on 09.07.2011 at 22:59 (Reply)

    I have a suggestion. For those introverts (like me) who need peaceful surroundings to connect with God, might I suggest you sit in a quiet church while there is no service going on. There’s nothing I love more than to sit in an empty, quiet church where you can actually hear the wooden seats creak. That’s when I can really concentrate on my internal conversation with God. Those are the moments that I love the most and that touch my heart and spirit the most. That’s when the connection is the clearest and I can feel his peaceful answer invading my heart, mind and soul.

    1. Christy on 10.07.2011 at 01:10 (Reply)

      My favorite part of a service is the sermon, because I love to learn, I love theology, and I love a chance to sit quietly and mull over my thoughts and prayers with a journal. I find that that last works best for me in a setting of teaching. In short, I love the academic portion of the service and not the interpersonal part. But sitting alone in a church wouldn’t move me as it seems to do you. Those moments that you speak of happen with me when I’m involved in some sort of Bible study on my own.

      1. Danielle on 10.07.2011 at 10:58 (Reply)

        Dear Christy:

        I know what you mean. Although the catholic priests at my church repeated much the same sermons year after year, I did enjoy when they read biblical stories during the service. Those truly got to me and touched me. I guess that is why to this day I still love watching biblical movies every chance I get. These are still very special moments for me that touch me deeply inside and stay with me.

  9. Peggy on 20.07.2011 at 07:54 (Reply)

    I find this discussion so interesting and refreshing! I grew up in a household where father took us to church while my mother stayed at home. She always explained that she “found the time in church intrusive. People would not leave (her) alone with her personal thoughts and emotions.” Instead she ( a very strong introvert) spoke about finding her spiritual life better suited to time alone in her garden. It does seem important that someone has at least raised this issue. Perhaps churches can be more sensitive to the many ways people choose to worship.

  10. [...] Introverts in The Church [...]

  11. Karen Allendoerfer on 11.02.2012 at 09:20 (Reply)

    A little over 15 years ago I underwent a search for a new spiritual home. I had grown up in a mainline Protestant church, not necessarily evangelical, but after reading this, I see many of the aspects that made me uncomfortable about that practice. Over time I became able to tolerate and live with the hyper-friendliness, as long as I didn’t have to initiate it myself. But what really got me down were the spiritual implications: I got to the point where I started to believe that if you were inwardly directed and socially awkward, you were not loved by their God. I came to see extroverts as the chosen ones, and introverts like me as the damned. I left that path and became a Unitarian-Universalist. I always thought that my main reasons for the change were theological and intellectual, and maybe they still are, but I also have to acknowledge the role that feeling so out of place as an introvert, in a mainstream Christian setting, played in my leaving.

  12. [...] but curious introverts would rather just slip in anonymously. One of the posts I found was Introverts in the Church by guest blogger Rev. Adam McHugh in Susan Cain’s blog. Sure, the focus is the Evangelical Church, but we might want to think [...]

  13. Sarah on 24.03.2013 at 08:20 (Reply)

    I enjoyed meeting you at blissdom ths weekend. I loved being able to tell you how the part of your book about introverts in church impacted me and you suggested the book above. I will be reading that one as well. Thank you for being our voice!!! I wrote about you and your book quiet as one of my first blog posts. I want everyone I know, introvert and extrovert, to read your book!!

    Blessings!!

  14. Are Churches Isolating Introverts? on 03.08.2013 at 16:30

    [...] other day, I found a brilliant post from Adam McHugh about introverts in the church. In the post, Susan shared the story of an introverted man who was visiting a church and felt [...]

  15. […] Cain says it well in her blog post Introverts in the Church: “Evangelicalism has a chatty, mingling informality about it, and no matter how well-intentioned […]

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